Keith Earls has staked his claim to both Munster and Ireland’s No 13 jerseys after stating his ambition to become “the best centre in the world”.
With Munster having signed centres James Downey and former All Black Casey Laulala for next season, Earls, 24, launched a preemptive bid to convince incoming head coach Rob Penney that he is the man to nail down the outside centre position long-term.
The British & Irish Lion has struggled to consistently secure a specialist position since he made his professional debut for Munster in 2007 and he only played regularly at 13 for the first time during what has been an injury-hit season.
Set to return there on Friday night for Munster’s RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final at Ospreys, Earls said he would be telling Penney on the New Zealander’s arrival in Ireland this summer that he no longer wanted to play on the wing.
“I was getting a bit worried when I found out we’d signed Downey and Laulala, especially as Rob has coached Laulala at Canterbury as well,” Earls said yesterday during an interview on behalf of Lucozade Sport.
“Hopefully, the first day he comes, I’ll be going straight into him and saying, ‘look, I want to play 13’.
“I don’t want to play on the wing any more. It’s not my position and I don’t enjoy it so, hopefully, I want to improve as a 13.
“I don’t want to keep mixing and matching. Hopefully I can start creating space for my wingers.”
Earls conceded that as far as his international career was concerned, the return of Brian O’Driscoll to full fitness in time for next month’s three-Test tour to New Zealand may mean having to settle for the wing on Ireland duty as head coach Declan Kidney restores his long-time captain to the ranks.
“I suppose getting selected is the first thing and then I’ll deal with that when that comes, if Deccie needs me to play on the wing,” Earls said.
“But I’ll let my feelings be known that I don’t feel comfortable on the wing anymore and I want to be a centre.
“I’ve played in the centre all season and I’ve enjoyed it and I’m getting better, defensively especially, putting in more tackles and getting a lot more confident. Whereas on the wing, I don’t have great confidence there.”
Earls spoke of growing weary with chopping and changing between the wing, full-back and midfield positions throughout his five seasons as a professional and promised there was more to come from him at outside centre once he was fully fit.
“I’ve been mixing and matching since I became a professional rugby player. Like Johne [Murphy], he’s played full-back, centre and wing this year and it’s tough to nail down a position.
“Certain things come into your head when you’re at centre and then you go on the wing and it’s different, and then full-back again. I want to be a centre and I want to be the best centre in the world and so I want to play there as much as I can to try and learn everything there is to know about it.
“I’ve performed in the centre when I wasn’t fit and so hopefully when I do get fit I can explode onto the scene and get a good run there.”
From the reports about Penney he has already received, Earls may be optimistic about getting a fair hearing from the incoming head coach.
“He obviously has a good record. I was talking to [team-mate and former Canterbury player] Pete Borlase, apparently he’s a good, positive coach, he’s not massively into video work, it’s all about the pitch and about ourselves rather than looking at other teams. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a change and hopefully he’ll freshen us up a little bit.”
Earls’ bid for the 13 jersey also received a boost from Munster team-mate Murphy, who backed the Moyross player as the heir apparent to Ireland captain O’Driscoll.
“We all know that there’s a huge jersey to fill in a couple of years’ time,” Murphy said, “and there’s no doubt in my mind that he can fill it and go on to become one of the best that has ever played there.”
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